Is Chelsea Flower Show too . . . showy?
Bluebells, snowdrops and hellebores have had a fabulous year. They now give way to Chelsea Flower Show, an event at which they are never shown. This year’s show begins on May 24 for members of the Royal Horticultural Society and from May 26 to 28 for non-members too. The sell-off of some of the plants begins on Saturday May 28 at 4pm. Well-placed financial readers will have already enjoyed the gala evening on Monday, one of the corporate essentials of the year. Between deals, they may also have time to see the exhibits. I will have left about five hours earlier. We can then all settle down to BBC television where the show will receive 11 hours of coverage over the course of the week.
Maybe the TV factor accounts for the show’s growing element of showmanship. Myriads of handmade poppies will be shown in the gardens of Royal Hospital Chelsea in memory of the horrors of 1916. Two big flowery designer arches will honour the Queen’s 90th birthday. Then there are the outdoor show gardens, miraculously built in less than three weeks. They have become a showcase for many garden designers’ careers but hyper-artificiality is now built into the escapade. I admire their ingenuity and sympathise with the pressures of time and weather which they all face. Their impact on my own gardening is precisely zero. So I judge them differently: do I want to pay to look at them?
The show’s sponsor, M&G, sounds as if it has sponsored a personal ego-trip. The designer, Cleve West, spent his teenage years on Exmoor and has been given free rein to pay “contemporary homage to the landscape that made such an impression on him”. Big trees of Quercus pubescens, an appropriate oak tree, border a garden that “leads you past stunted trees and rocks to a smoother path, a sunken terrace and a pool”. Apparently it can be viewed as a sort of flat-pack CV. The design is a “metaphor for the fact that the path was unsure to begin with, but smoother once the chosen career became clear”. I suppose it is apt that it then sinks into the pond. Cleve West is a past winner for the Best in Show garden and his decision to show a landscape rather than a classic garden is a bold one. I am probably the wrong person for its underlying meaning. I knew exactly what I wanted to do and have now spent 46 years doing it weekly for the FT. I do not want to pay to go to a flower show to see blueberry plants out of season just because they “reference” someone’s “memory of picking whortleberries in and around the ancient woodland of Exmoor”. The oak theme is billed as another “metaphor”, one for M&G’s values of “strength, growth, longevity and reliability”. Right now, oaks in the real world are under mortal threat from a deadly beetle. They are also succumbing to killer diseases, including sudden oak death, widely abbreviated as SOD.
Brewin Dolphin, another financial business, has also sponsored a garden based on a landscape. It has hired Rosy Hardy to develop plantings related to the lovely flora around English chalk streams, only 200 of which, she thinks, are left in the world, 160 of them in England. In recent years the planting and flowery colour of many of Chelsea’s outdoor gardens have been woeful. I will be interested to see if one of our most flowery gold medallists inside the show pavilion can transfer her talents to a show garden outdoors. Rosy’s indoor exhibits of perennial plants have won her a gold medal in each of the past 20 years because she has a brilliant way with colour and placing. Her garden will echo the flora round the river Test, which is a paradise for trout fishermen. As her home nursery is in Hampshire, she has inside knowledge of what she is trying to represent. I will be looking carefully at it.
Show gardens have every right to be showy and odd. I just do not like them. None has been quite so odd as what Diarmuid Gavin is planning for the Harrods British Eccentrics Garden. It has a solid octagonal folly and a formal terrace of clipped box, but every 15 minutes it becomes motorised and starts to rotate and move around. Mechanical shears trim the topiary and troughs of flowers rise up to decorate the first-floor windows. Even the box hedging begins to bob up and down. It is billed as a tribute to Heath Robinson. It sounds to me like Diarmuid’s whirling balls.
As a gardener I do not want to pay to see this sort of gimmick: do I want to pay to be confronted with suffering, health and a social message? They are well represented this year. Morgan Stanley has hired Chris Beardshaw to design a series of small woodland gardens, a pool and a Japanese “Azumaya” pavilion, which apparently helps to highlight “the effervescence and optimism of childhood”. The garden will then be transferred to Great Ormond Street Hospital where it will be reinstalled as a space for parents and child patients, albeit in a rather ill-lit space.
The herb expert, Jekka McVicar, has based a modern “apothecary garden” round conversations with “doctors and care professionals”. The natural calm and stillness of gardens are apparently thought to be good for health, as are red-leaved plants which are “high in anthocyanidins”, useful to guard against “oxidative stress”. The one care professional who has ever worked with me in my garden was adamant that plants may sometimes contain useful chemicals, but they have them in raw and dangerous proportions and are only any use when refined and adapted by the great chemical companies on which our palliative care and survival depend. McVicar is another expert transferring from inside the Chelsea pavilions where she has won 62 gold medals. Afterwards her garden will go to a hospice. I hope it tells the truth about “herbal” medicine.
In spring 2015, Parliament passed the Modern Slavery Act, banning it, in case students wondered, not imposing it. According to the Modern Slavery Campaign Garden, there are still 13,000 slaves in Britain and so the garden is dark and lifeless inside, but colourful and open on the outside. Half-open doors lead symbolically to freedom for any forced labour still caught in Chelsea cupboards and kitchens, and yet again there is an oak, this time symbolising the very oak still standing in Sussex under which William Wilberforce dedicated his life to having slavery abolished. I have to pay my respects here, but to the cause, not the garden simply as a garden.
Of course we pay, push and jostle to see the real maestros, the experts who exhibit in the pavilions. I know I will like the roses and the orchids, the amazing walls of fuchsias, the alpines and the gladioli. I may even become briefly soppy about the new Princess Charlotte, because a chrysanthemum, to my delight, has been chosen to commemorate the new royal baby. In the central monument site, Bowdens, the specialists in hostas, has taken on the challenge of inventing an entire planted platform, complete with a railway carriage from a historic British train. Kitsch is creeping into the former holy of holies, and I dread it. At least dear Diarmuid has not been asked to power the wheels with hot air.
Photographs: RHS; Marck Reclame; Stuart C. Wilson/WPA Pool/Getty Images